Jonathan Pryce is relaxing in a Beverly Hills Hotel room. Here to talk about his latest role in The Wife. He’s about to return to London to begin rehearsals as he returns to the West End in The Price of the Storm. TV fans will know him from Games of Thrones as High Winter, musical fans know him from Miss Saigon and Evita, and film fans will have seen his body of work ranging from Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrow Never Dies as the villain Elliot Carver. Pryce speaks with a soft voice as he talks about what attracts him to his role. His latest is Joe, married to Glenn Close’s Joan. They’ve been married for years, and when Joe has to fly to Europe to accept the Nobel Prize, secrets come to light about his success and their relationship.
I spoke to Pryce about playing Joe, a complex character, one that sparks conversations as to whether Joe is bad or if he’s good, We also talk about his excitement to return to the West End in his new play.
You have a remarkable body of work from Evita, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Evita, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Game of Thrones, Tomorrow Never Dies and now this role in The Wife. What draws you to a project ?
If it’s a theater script – and I still do a lot of theater – that is something I try to find belongs in the theater and not on TV and I can recreate it eight times a week, night after night. With a film script, I can tell you all sorts of reasons. The script might not be so great, but it’s a great location. The character is OK, but the money is good. Or there’s no money but it’s a good script. What attracted me to The Wife is essentially is it’s such a good script. It’s an intelligent script and ultimately about a couple who have been in a long marriage. It’s not the crazy old character.
As with theater, I like to think there’s some work for the audience to do and this would be and is a provocative script that can lead to arguments and discussions about was it right with what they were doing? Why didn’t she leave him? I can say, why should she have left him? Is it natural to assume that if a relationship isn’t working well someone has to leave? Neither of them leave and they try to work it out, and I think it’s a true representation of a long relationship I think.
I met Bjorn and liked him enormously because he’s a serious man about film and theater and he works there. I saw two of his Swedish films. Only one of them had subtitles so the other one I looked at the pictures. The other one, I really liked. It was an ensemble film about relationships and was slightly satirical.
There was also Glenn. You want to work with good people. Those are the reasons.
Joe is a great character. He’s one you have to figure out because you have that opening scene and you have to figure out what’s going on. You get to the middle and there’s that confrontation and things happen from there. What’s it like playing this complex character and taking that on?
It’s great. I’ve been forced to think about it because when you’re doing it I’m not constructing a performance, I’m doing it. I’m being Joe and doing what feels right. I don’t have a process and I don’t plot a character. People have reacted and said he’s such a bad character and I’ve said, “No.” I didn’t think High Sparrow was a bad character. He’s doing what feels right to him. He’s pursuing his political ideology and going about his life. That’s what I say about the audience being a part of the film because when a character is as rich as Joe is, the audience can make their own judgments about him. There isn’t one way of looking at him. Playing him, I just do what I believe to be the right thing. I don’t try to objectify the character and make judgments about him.
I enjoyed playing him. We did a week of table rehearsal where we read the script over and over again, dissecting it and working out whether the script was saying what we wanted it to say. By the time we came to shoot it, it was organic between Glenn and I. We never talked about what we were thinking, we just behaved and things happened. She listened to me, I listened to her and we reacted.
In that scene you mentioned, I found myself getting angry because of the guilt I felt in the scene and because of what had happened before so you try to shout your way out of it. Those things were plotted. Mercifully, the good thing is Glenn was able to get angry and shout back. Bjorn had two cameras and if we did retakes, we did them from the top to the bottom but he captured everything we were doing.
I saw it properly for the first time at the BAFTA screening last week. I’d seen it on my laptop and the wifi was hopeless so I hadn’t seen it properly until then. The bits I had seen I was still too close too, but seeing it at the BAFTA screening, I had some distance and it was extraordinary. I was delighted.
Normally, when you watch things because you get frustrated because a moment or a thought you had, the editor will cut to the person who’s talking rather than showing you thinking and this time, everything and all those silences that Glenn has were great. Bjorn was so aware of what we were trying to do, it was mostly in the edit that they chose to look at the person reacting rather than the person making the most noise, so that was really rewarding.
I loved those close up shots because they spoke volumes. It allowed us to see what he’s thinking and it made me want to know more about who he is.
I don’t see him as say a bad guy. I didn’t think of it while playing him. It’s hard to talk about because you don’t want to give too much away. Those moments when he reacts violently or when he’s guilty and trying to cover up something. He’s a man who had a lot of affairs, it can be justified that he had creative impulses but he wasn’t doing the writing, yet her was the one getting the praise and it was undue praise. He has affairs because it would flatter him and mean he was still attractive.He was seeking approval because he never got it from his wife. Another thing is it was her idea. They were complicit in the beginning, you see where he’s giving ideas but because it went on for so long, it became a part of their lives. If he hadn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize, this would not have happened. They would have gone on and the secret would never have come out.
The downside of that relationship is the effect it has on the son. That horrible scene whereas the toddler is carried away by his father and is saying, “Mummy!” I thought it was heavy. I found it, as a parent, cruel, but it’s vital to the film. She didn’t go running after the child. She says, “He’ll be OK, I’ll carry on.”
You’re doing theater next, how do you decide it’s time to go back?
A lot of things. I enjoy theater and I love doing it. I’ve been away from home for quite a bit recently. I was away doing Don Quixote and I’ve been in Buenos Aires doing The Pope so I just wanted to know I could be home for three months because it’s going until Christmas.
The last two theater plays I did were King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. They’re physically and mentally demanding. I didn’t expect them to be, but the way we did it were full on. This new role, he’s 80 and he has dementia. He doesn’t say a lot. I remember meeting a performance artist who is part of the Chaplain family and I went backstage to say hello to him. He said, “I like your work we should work together.” Of course, I thought it’d be great. I said, “Could you write me a part where I sit down and don’t say anything.” So, I waited and here we are. It’s a really beautiful and poetic play. I’m doing it with Eileen Atkins. I’m looking forward to it.
Back to the West End!
August in London! I try not to go to London in Summer but I couldn’t get around it this time.